Thinking on Children: A Literary Look at Childhood

“The Child is the Father of the Man” and Woman

by | Apr 22, 2004

When William Wordsworth formulated this reversal of parenting, putting children first and parents later, he followed through on a romantic inspiration about innocence being close to wisdom. Adults can, and should, learn from children’s uncluttered capacity to love the world outside themselves. The Romantics practically discovered children for serious literature. Before then, children had been more or less tolerated as potential adults rather than as respected partners in conversation, much less as beacons toward enlightenment. But by the late 18th century, romanticism in literature was simultaneous with substantial investments in legitimate family life. Together, literature and domesticity formed part of the general moment of bourgeois modernization. Surely Wordsworth, with his fellow poets-as-philosophers, could not have been thinking about Latin American novels that put children at their center. Those Spanish-language novels were written long afterwards and in a language that may have stayed foreign to him. But the same inspiration to modernize by taking a fresh look through naïve narrators is also the spirit of several of Latin America’s most compelling novels. My personal favorite one is narrated by a relatively dark-skinned girl named Snow White.

Five-year-old Blanca Nieves has the upper hand at home on a Venezuelan plantation just before the oil boom made renewable products a thing of the past. The little girl was one of six daughters, born successively every year to a father who wanted at least one son to inherit the patrimony. In Las memorias de Mamá Blanca by Teresa de la Parra (1929), “Father played the thankless role of God,” while a charming mother filled the plantation with poetry and with delightful daughters. Blanca knows her power in this feminized world, especially as one of the little women who reign there. Without bragging, the child narrator observes that she and her sisters were at “the center of this Cosmos.” That is why, she explains, everyone referred to them in the royal second person singular: .

A brilliant case of self-empowerment, Blanca’s interpretation of “tú” could be dismissed as a mistake, much as her father practically dismissed the births of his daughters. But Mother knows best. Where there is room for mistake, there is also room for freedom. Though misunderstood as merely frivolous and impractical, Mother had been careful to give her daughters fanciful and unlikely names, instead of trapping them with appropriate labels that could predict their fates: Blanca Nieves was hardly Snow White, but the darkest of all the girls; Violeta was no shrinking flower, but the tomboy of the family. Only one of the daughters, by the paradoxical mistake of being right, got a name that fit her too well. It was Aurora, the dawn, and she lasted only seven years. At her early death, Blanca muses on the perfect name. “It’s wrong to be right,” she concludes. Words are kinder when they keep a distance that allows for variation and interpretation. This is a profound lesson in literary criticism, philosophy, social theory, and we come to it by way of a purposefully naïve child. Literary and social analyses can theorize about the effects of “re-signification,” that is, changing the value of a word for strategic purposes: “Chicano,” for example, was taken up by Mexican Americans as a positive identification though it had been used as a slur. “Queer” now names gestures of gender liberation instead of a pathology. Even the word “woman,” resignified as an active social agent, has challenged more limiting traditional meanings. But I can think of no more dramatic and simply elegant example of resignification than little Blanca’s use of the common and often condescending “tú” as a confirmation of her royalty. Apparently innocent because it comes from a child, the novel’s clever shift of privilege affects other relationships too. Father’s second-person address to his workers now glows with respect, while their formal third-person address to Father makes “usted” sound ironic and distant. Teresa de la Parra manages to realign all these asymmetrical relationships of class and gender through a child’s point of view. Knowing that she is loved enables her to speak. And knowing only as much as her five years will allow enables her to see and to hear the obvious lessons of her world.

Other child-centered novels come to mind as vehicles for social realignment. I think, for example, of La Mañosa, by Juan Bosch (1936). Told in the autobiographical voice of the author as a little boy, the novel is about coming down with a fever that lasts throughout the book. The novel is a confused, in fact feverish, account of one of the many revolutions in the tobacco-growing area of the Dominican Republic. War and fever clearly go together in the uncomplicated child-size picture, and they ravage the future of both the boy and his country. For another noteworthy case of sobering childlike clarity through an irresistible child narrator, think of Balún Canán (1957), by Rosario Castellanos. Chiapas is the setting for the narrator who protests, with the first line, that no, she is not a grain of cumin, she is a little girl. The indigenous housekeeper had dismissed the child’s questions as ignorant. The girl stays confused, and her lasting confusion through the narrative performs the main point stronger than a statement could do. The point is that she is destined to stay ignorant as a condition of her privilege. If she knew how her family came to power and stayed powerful, shame and justice would interfere with privilege. Very soon, she learns that her parents will dismiss her rights to the family’s inheritance, because girls do not inherit, especially when claims to the land clash between Creole deeds and the indigenous documents of Balún Canán. The parents will even stint on her lessons in reading and writing, as unnecessary or dangerous in a Creole girl who asks honest questions. On the historical background of Mexico’s top-down reform legislation about land use and public education, the nameless child narrator brings local corruption into focus.

We are used to appreciating Latin American novels for, among other things, doing some historical work that official histories refuse to do. For instance, La vorágine (1924) by José Eustacio Rivera called attention to the slave-like conditions in the rubber plantations where the Amazon blurs the borders of Colombia, Peru and Brazil. One Hundred Years of Solitude(1967) by Gabriel García Márquez, narrates the largely undocumented massacre of Colombia’s banana workers in 1927. El hablador (1987) by Mario Vargas Llosa denounces genocidal modernization, despite the author’s political preference to foster modernization at all cost. Novels, we know, multiply history’s points of view by giving voice to a range of characters. Therefore, novels can recover details and interpretations that might seem extraneous or inconveniently contradictory to official histories. Should we notice, too, that the political charm of some novels is their strategic childishness rather than their added intelligence? When the chosen narrators are too young to collect confusing details but rather see a glaring reality in its raw confusion, they are also naïve enough to ask us what it all means.

Spring 2004Volume III, Number 3

Doris Sommer is the initiator of Cultural Agency at DRCLAS, a project that links the humanities with social development. See She is Ira Jewell Williams Professor of Romance Languages and author of Foundational Fictions (1991), Proceed with Caution (1999), and Bilingual Aesthetics (2004).

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